Learning Notes: Supporting engagement and assessment

Published on Tuesday, 02 November 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 02 November 2021

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Learning Stories are the most established form of assessment for early childhood education in New Zealand, yet over ten years ago academic Dr Ken Blaiklock proposed an alternative approach, Learning Notes. Propelled by Blaiklock’s research, Maungaraki Kindergarten undertook a robust evaluation process and introduced Learning Notes with outstanding results.

Like Learning Stories, Learning Notes are used to help communicate children’s early learning experiences. Except while Learning Stories are written in a narrative story format, Learning Notes are short observations with associated learning outcomes. They are used for formative and summative assessment.

Maungaraki Kindergarten, located in the Lower Hutt region, recently discussed their experiences with Learning Notes with Education Gazette. Introduced in 2020, the kindergarten described their Learning Notes assessment approach as being ‘right there in the moment’ of a child’s learning, and observed gains in teaching practices, whānau engagement and outcomes for tamariki.

Explaining the introduction of Learning Notes, head teacher, Anna Stratford, said they wanted to encourage children to back themselves.

“Ultimately we wanted to develop a system that promoted and empowered tamariki to view themselves as successful learners, to allow them opportunities and choices to guide their own learning, direct the programme and experience and environment where kaiako support them meaningfully and authentically in their growth and development,” she said.

The evaluation process of Learning Notes included a self-assessment of the kindergarten – including time teachers spent on Learning Stories – research into what works best to authentically represent children and their learning journey and surveying families. Interestingly parents asked for “fewer words, more pictures.”

Storypark is the online platform used for capturing Learning Notes and images, this allows learning experiences to be sent to whānau in real time.

Ms Stratford said whānau now receive more regular updates: “sometimes we get responses from whānau instantly and we’re able to share that with the children too. This is really reassuring for them because they know their whānau are involved in their early childhood education experience. It makes those links between kindergarten and home so much stronger,”

Maungaraki Kindergarten highlighted benefits from the Learning Notes practice, which included:

  • Identifying a wider range of a child’s learning
  • Increased engagement with tamariki, allowing kaiako to be more ‘present’
  • Building relationships and engagement with families, fuelling conversations to assist a child’s learning
  • Providing an opportunity to identify, scaffold and progress learning
  • Positive feedback from whānau including not feeling overwhelmed by the length of learning stories and the use of academic language

What are Learning Notes?

The concept of Learning Notes was developed by Ken Blaiklock, from the Unitec Institute of Technology, and provides a comprehensive and time-practical strategy to  assist teachers in carrying out a range of assessment across Te Whāriki’s strands and learning outcomes.

Unlike Learning Stories, Learning Notes do not follow the constraints of a narrative format. This means they are less time-consuming and can be completed more frequently for children, quickly building up a picture of the child as a learner.

Learning Notes can be used to: provide an accurate, concise description of an event; interpretation of learning; and next steps. These three components can be summarised as: ‘describe’; ‘interpret’; and ‘what next?’

  • Describe

Involves writing a description of a child’s involvement in a learning experience in a sentence or two, or up to several paragraphs. Information about the context, time, other participants and language expressed can be included. This part of the learning note is written at the time of observation or shortly afterwards. Blaiklock suggests sometimes only the ‘describe’ section of a learning note is needed, particularly where accomplishments are obvious, however Education Review Office is very critical of assessment practices that do not highlight learning.

  • Interpret

Is a comment that highlights the significance of the learning.

  • What next?

This section includes ideas for extending and following on from what was observed.

Blaiklock has documented a wide range of concerns related to the use of Learning Stories as an assessment technique, these include:

  • Problems with establishing the validity or credibility of Learning Stories
  • A lack of guidance on what areas of learning to assess
  • Problems with defining the learning dispositions that are supposed to be the focus of Learning Stories
  • Problems in using Learning Stories to show changes in children’s learning and development over time
  • Problems in using a Learning Story about a specific experience as a basis for planning future learning experiences in different contexts

According to Blaiklock: “In contrast to Learning Stories, Learning Notes do not focus on dispositions to learn but instead can be used to describe the knowledge, skills and attitudes of children.”

One of the most obvious benefits of Learning Notes is their flexibility, and the ease of recording means teachers can capture their observations while they are working with children.

Teachers can make spontaneous and planned observations, allowing them to capture a wider range of experiences. Ideas for future learning experiences can be followed up that day or the next. This immediacy makes the process highly dynamic, allowing teachers to involve children at the time of writing a Learning Note.

In contrast, Learning Stories often have a time delay between the initial observation and writing it up, and the implementation of suggestions for futures experiences. It can take time to write up a story format, the process can be time consuming, and a criticism is that Learning Stories are not written often enough to provide a proper record of a child’s development – a common practice in early childhood centres is to produce one Learning Story per child per month.

In Blaiklock’s Assessment in New Zealand early childhood settings he writes, “The more frequent documentation that is available with the use of Learning Notes allows teacher to build up a more comprehensive record of a child’s learning and development than is possible with Learning Stories.”

For Maungaraki Kindergarten their assessment of Learning Notes is in and it’s positive for all their communities.

Head teacher, Anna Stratford summed up their team approach, stating: “With the new assessment process, we have decided that as a team we write for all children, for all learning that we feel is valuable.

Now we are getting a wider range of identified learning because each teacher will identify something different. Whānau are developing relationships with all the teachers and their work is getting acknowledged as well.”

Thank you to Education Gazette for their contribution to this article on Learning Notes.

Resources and further reading

He Kupu: Te Whāriki revisited: How approaches to assessment can make valued learning visible

My ECE: Learning Stories: What is a Learning Story? And is it a good way of assessing a child's learning?

The Education Hub: What is assessment in early childhood education

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